Welcome to the world of boba pearls and bubble teas. Over the years, the bubble tea craze has successfully captured the world’s universal penchant for a sweetened cold beverage through its exciting and pleasurable drinking experience. It reached continents outside Asia, spreading across North America, and Europe.
Also known as boba tea, bubble tea is a refreshing treat made of tea, milk, sweeteners, and boba (tapioca pearls). The sweet taste of milk tea paired with the chewy tapioca balls makes up the unique element that bubble tea provides.
Customizing your drink with tea and non-tea options, dairy or non-dairy milk, and varying sugar levels, with a pretty aesthetic in a handy cup provides excitement. Drinkers take pleasure in sucking boba or other sinkers offering novelty making it an enhanced and blissful drinking experience.
In this article, we’ll dive deep into this delectable, creamy, and chewy beverage that has taken the world by storm, highlighting popular varieties of boba, what goes in bubble tea, and how to make it at home.
What is Bubble Tea?
The OG bubble tea comes from Taiwan and is known as zhenzhu naicha. It literally translates to “pearl” (zhen zhu) and “tea with milk” (nai cha). It’s known by many different names around the world – bubble tea, boba tea, milk tea with pearls, and pearl milk tea are just some of them.
This classic form of bubble tea consists of black tea, milk, ice, and chewy tapioca pearls.
Ingredients are layered in a tall, single-serve, sealed plastic cup with a thick straw to accommodate the tapioca pearls that sink and then cluster at the bottom of the cup. Tapioca pearls or boba pearls are prominent features of bubble tea.
While this crowd-pleasing beverage started in Asia, bubble tea is now enjoyed by people across the globe. April 30th marks Bubble Tea Day and is a worldwide commercial celebration of the delicious drink.
Bubble tea comes in an infinite number of variations, many of which do not include tea. Fruity concoctions such as yogurt or Yakult-based, chocolate, and coffee confections with boba are also considered bubble tea. Aside from tapioca pearls, several other toppings can be used.
Milk tea shops offer fully customizable cups of boba tea. One can choose the type of tea (whether a stronger-tasting tea or a mildly pleasant one), with or without milk (or a non-dairy alternative), vary the sweetness (from zero to 100% sugar level), how much boba you want (a small or large amount of it), or add your favorite toppings to the mix.
In the next section, we’ll take a look at the different kinds of teas and how to prepare them, as various ingredients, especially covering the different types of boba and sweeteners.
There are many varieties of Milk tea but we’ll highlight only a handful of the more popular ones.
Classic Milk Tea
When a craving hits and a boba tea shop is nearby, you can’t help but pop in and grab yourself a cup. With all the available options, sometimes the best course is to nab their signature blend with boba pearls. This also works if you are looking for something other than your usual (we’ll always come back for you, Matcha Red Bean!).
Typically, the classic milk tea is made with black tea and the shop’s choice of creamer and boba pearls. If you’re lactose-intolerant, ask about a dairy substitute. They may have it or you’d be pleasantly surprised to know that the shop uses a non-dairy creamer (common in many places as it’s amazingly shelf-stable).
Brown Sugar Milk Tea
Brown sugar is undeniably popular due to the success of Tiger Sugar, a boba tea chain from Taichung that garnered massive success with this milk tea variety. The original brown sugar bubble tea has a rich cream and unique brown sugar syrup tiger stripe design hence the name of the brand. Brown sugar boba tea is velvety-rich and heavily doused by thick brown sugary syrup with dark brown pearls.
Fruit Based Tea
If milk tea isn’t your cup of tea, there are tons of shops offering fruit teas that you can try to jump in on the bubble tea wagon. Fruit tea is extremely popular for those considering healthier options. It’s typically made with black tea, fresh, powdered or concentrated fruit juice.
It can be dairy-free, and the sinkers that go well with it other than boba are ingenious alternative jelly textures that are highly addictive. When choosing a fruit milk tea, you’ll get a really great flavor and texture combination from Honeydew or Strawberry paired with the richness of milk.
For fruit tea without milk, there are lots of flavors to indulge in such as mango, lychee, pomegranate, apple, and coconut. These fruits are delicious without milk but don’t skip trying the amazing array of jelly flavors they come with – aloe vera, fruit-flavored jellies, coffee jelly, and yogurt and fruit jellies.
Cheese Milk Tea
Cheese Milk Tea with Pearls is the stuff of dreams. This type of milk tea includes the four basic ingredients but with a cheesecake topping, cheese foam, or thinned-out cream cheese that can be enhanced with salt for that sweet-salty pull. The original concoction from a Taiwanese night market was a mix of powdered milk, cheese, salt, and whipping cream.
Other Ingredients for Bubble Milk Tea
Classic bubble tea includes four main ingredients: brewed tea, milk (or a non-dairy alternative), a sweetener, and boba pearls. Milk can also be skipped for more modern bubble teas like fruit teas or herbal tea infusions.
The mixture is typically shaken with ice and served with a thick straw to suck out all the sinkers. Alternatively, some bubble tea shops leave the shaking to their customers and simply layer or pile the ingredients in the cup. Some shops recommend flipping them twice instead of shaking them.
Bubble tea shops will also let you add toppings to your boba drink, such as boba, jellies, pudding, or even fresh fruits. These can also add sweetness to your drink aside from making them more exciting and pleasurable to sip.
There are many interesting ingredients for milk tea. These can include:
- Boba: Boba pearls, Popping Boba, Crystal Boba
- Jellies: Aloe, Grass, Lychee, Coconut, Pineapple, Lychee, Passionfruit, Coffee, Grape
- Pudding: Classic Egg, Chocolate, Mango, Taro,
- Flavored syrups, milk, and spreads Nutella, Biscoff, Chocolate Syrup, Caramel Syrup, Coffee Syrup, Vanilla Syrup, Mango Syrup, Passionfruit Syrup, Condensed Milk,
- Cream: Cream Cheese, Cheesecake, Rock Salt, Salty Cheese Foam, Salty Cream,
- Others: Azuki Red Beans, Rock Salt, Yogurt, Ice cream, Oreo, Biscoff, Brown Sugar
- Fresh / Frozen Fruits: Melon, Strawberry, Mango, Blueberry, Plum, Apple, and chunks of fruit are some of the fruits that can be mixed into boba tea.
What Are Boba (Tapioca Pearls)
Boba pearls are vegan-friendly, translucent spheres that improve the bubble tea drinking experience. Slightly larger than tapioca pearls, they’re popular “sinkers” in bubble tea used to add texture with their chewy, soft, and somewhat firm nature. Boba pearls were created as a visual contrast to the color of milk tea.
They’re made from tapioca starch, an extract from the cassava root or yucca plant native to the West Indies and South America. Tapioca pearls are tasteless or very mild in flavor. To enhance the flavor and to prevent them from sticking to one another, they’re boiled in molasses or brown sugar syrup which also gives their signature dark brown color.
Some say the perfect “pearl” is soft at the first bite that your teeth can sink into but still chewy on the inside that you want to keep on savoring the tapioca balls like gum. Their springy nature comes primarily from starch. Variations in chewiness are due to different recipes and cooking times.
Boba shouldn’t be hard and crispy because then it would be undercooked. It shouldn’t feel too mushy either because that would mean that it was overcooked. Some tapioca pearls also tend to be too sticky to chew.
The nutrients in tapioca may have some health perks that contribute to improved bone, heart, and digestive health. The starchy-root vegetable contains significant amounts of calcium and iron. It also doesn’t contain fat or cholesterol.
Different types of boba pearls
Grass jelly, aloe vera, almond jelly, custardy egg pudding, azuki beans, panna cotta, chia seeds, taro balls, and even Oreo cookies are now available as add-ins, in addition to tapioca balls.
But tapioca pearls are the OG bubble tea sinkers. Tapioca pearls come in a variety of colors and shapes, including clear, black, flavored, popping, and crystal. Here we’ll take a look at their differences.
Pearls can be as large as marbles, as small as peas, rectangular in shape, colored, tinted, or crystal clear. Sugar syrup is commonly used to make tapioca pearls sweet and chewy. They are frequently added to teas for texture, with the flavor provided by the drink itself.
Clear Boba Pearls
At its core, boba pearls are clear because they are made from only two ingredients: tapioca starch and water. Since both are clear, the output is likewise clear. Hence we have our first variety, unflavored and clear boba pearls.
While clear boba pearls are commonly categorized as plain tapioca pearls, in the boba world, they’re usually sweetened by adding white sugar in the preparation or soaking them in sugar syrup.
Black Boba Pearls
Black Boba Pearls are the most popular and classic boba pearls. It is delightfully sweet and highly addictive.
They start with clear boba pearls. With the addition of caramel color and molasses dark brown colored pearls are achieved. It’s meant as an intentional contrast to the aesthetic of bubble tea – a light brown liquid and dark brown pearls.
Flavored Boba Pearls
The flavors and variety of boba pearls just keep on expanding. You can try mango, strawberry, yuzu, lemon, green tea, and honey. Flavoring can be added to clear boba pearls during the preparation process to make flavored boba pearls.
Also known as popping pearls, bursting boba, bursting bubbles, juice balls, or popping bubbles, popping boba is an exciting bubble tea topping that, literally, bursts in your mouth! They are liquid-filled bubbles of fruit-flavored juices that pop in your mouth when consumed and your mouth is left with fruity deliciousness.
It’s a dessert pearl, like tapioca pearls made from colorful fruit juice. The main ingredient is the seaweed extract, which is considered to be the outer shell of the popping boba along with other ingredients needed for its “spherification”.
Spherification is a process that involves a reaction of sodium alginate (found in seaweed and algae) and calcium chloride or calcium lactate. It produces “bubbles” of fruit juice that burst when pressure is applied to them.
Crystal boba pearl is the most recent addition to the boba pearl family. The main distinction between crystal boba and boba pearls is that crystal boba is made from the Konjac plant rather than the cassava plant. The Konjac is a Southeast Asian tropical shrub.
Crystal boba is translucent and less chewy than regular boba pearls, having the texture of a firm jelly. They can also be flavored like boba pearls, but the most notable feature is that they contain significantly fewer calories than tapioca pearls, making them a good option if you’re looking for healthier alternatives.
Why You Should Try to Make it at Home
A regular 500 ml. cup of milk tea and tapioca pearls contains 38 grams of sugar and approximately 300 calories. This easily exceeds the recommended maximum daily intake of sugar for the average American as stipulated in the Dietary guidelines by the HHS (US Department of Health and Human Services).
Boba tea is high in calories and sugar. Both of these have been linked to long-term health conditions such as diabetes and obesity.
While bubble tea is fully customizable, every shop will still have its secret recipes for making boba, the quality of its tea, the type of milk, and the sweeteners that they use. Requesting fewer or no toppings can significantly reduce your sugar intake.
This is where making your bubble tea has an edge. While it’s more tedious on your part, you can manage the sugar and calorie level of your homemade cold beverage.
You can use natural sweeteners (like Stevia, agave nectar, or honey versus artificial) and lower-sugar alternatives. While the boba tea will be less sweet, you can still enjoy the flavor with less sugar.
You can also opt for low-fat dairy or dairy substitutes (also great for people with milk allergies) such as skimmed or fat-free, soy milk, almond milk, or oat milk. Using any of these or your desired dairy alternative can help you lower the number of calories in your bubble tea while providing additional health benefits. Use fewer toppings in your cold beverage, to make a hard cut on the sugar.
With varying “secret” ingredients and processes of the many tea shops around, store-bought boba may contain harmful ingredients. Some studies found that there are trace chemicals found in boba pearls, aside from the use of non-dairy chemical creamers which are full of hydrogenated fats.
Lastly, saving money! Making boba pearls and bubble tea at home is much less expensive than purchasing them from a store.
Calories of Bubble Tea
With limitless options in bubble tea shops around the world coupled with varying recipes in milk tea, boba pearls, syrup, and other flavor enhancers, it’s easier to provide a range of the calorie content of boba tea.
- There are approximately 300 calories in a 500 ml. cup of bubble tea
- There are approximately 500 calories in a 700 ml. cup of bubble tea
Tea used for Bubble Tea
Many tea shops will feature specific and signature teas among popular favorites such as black tea, matcha, oolong, or white tea. Specialized teas can include rice tea, barley tea, herbal tea infusions, fruit teas like winter melon, and honeydew, spiced teas like masala chai, and floral teas like rose, chamomile, and lavender.
Known as red tea in bubble tea’s native region (in Asian countries like China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan), is the tea that started it all. This type of tea is not just common in the US but the world over.
Black tea leaves are typically dark brown with a sweet sugary aroma and robust overall taste. These are fully-fermented teas that turn dark red after processing. They have a higher caffeine content than other tea varieties and can lead to a bitter mouthfeel if over-brewed.
Green Tea is another type of tea that dates back to ancient times. It is typically grown in East Asia and is a highly prized ingredient for its antioxidative properties. Processed differently from other teas coming from the Camellia sinensis plant, green tea has a clean, earthy, floral flavor.
Both leaf and powder forms (matcha) can be used for milk tea. This is a popular choice for bubble tea due to its flavor and vast health benefits.
A favorite among tea drinkers, oolong tea is partially oxidized leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. This traditional Chinese tea has a slightly sweet fruity-floral flavor, a bit woody with a thick finish. All of these incredible flavors come together to form a pleasantly light, and fragrant boba tea drink.
White tea is the least processed among all common tea varieties. Recent studies have shown that white tea may have more antioxidants than green tea because it is the least fermented. Known to be the most refreshing among all true tea types, it has a mild, honey-like, herbal, and delicate flavor.
This tea is elegant, refined, and a pure delight. Try it on your next bubble tea drink and experience the gentle subtlety that white tea brings to your cup.
how to brew tea
Tea brewing is a craft. It’s an age-old tradition and art that takes a certain amount of effort and attention to detail to produce a good cup of tea. Here are a few ways to brew tea plus several tips for optimal tea brewing:
The traditional method is simple. Simply boil purified water in a large pot. Tea leaves are added and later sifted using a filter cloth or use a tea infuser or tea strainer. Transfer the tea to a container.
While you can store your leftover pre-made tea in the fridge to save for another boba tea day your tea loses flavor over time. Likewise, residue from tea leaves in a large batch can still become bitter over time. Check to see if it tastes good before using it in your milk tea again.
Making a single-serve cup, manages the freshness of your tea ensuring that your cup is always a good one.
The cold brew method is another way to make cold tea. While this method is typically used for cold teas such as barley or rice tea, it is worth considering if you plan to drink leftover tea. Cold brewing (or Japanese mizudashi) is similar to making cold brew coffee.
Tea gains a lighter body and a hint of sweetness when prepared in this manner. White tea, green tea, and black tea are all ideal for this method of brewing. There are special tools on the market, but you can do it yourself.
Soak tea leaves in water at a specific temperature for a set amount of time. Fill a large pitcher that fits inside the refrigerator with tea bags or loose leaves. Allow it to brew for 12 hours in the refrigerator (this works best overnight). This will result in a sweeter, lower caffeinated brew. After brewing, strain out the used leaves or bags. The infusion is now ready for consumption.
Various methods of making tea and how the tea leaves are produced, as well as water quality, temperatures, and steeping time, all play a role in making the perfect cup of milk tea.
- Use purified water and avoid tap water. When making tea, always use cold, freshly drawn water.
- Use the proper water ratio. Follow the manufacturer’s guide in tea leaf/tea bag to water ratio.
- Use the proper temperature. To avoid a flat taste, don’t over boil your water. The temperature of the water also varies depending on the type of tea you’re making. Certain teas, such as green tea, require a cooler temperature to bring out the best flavor, whereas fully oxidized black tea requires a much hotter temperature to bring out its sweetness. Take a look at our guide below.
- Lastly, watch your steeping time. Steeping tea for too short a time may result in a flavorless or weak cup while doing it for too long often yields a strong, bitter, and unpleasant cup of tea. Different tea types have varying steeping. Green tea generally has shorter brewing times around 8-10 minutes. Earthy black teas with high fermentations, on the other hand, benefit from longer brewing times of 15-20 minutes.
Here’s a steeping time guide for various loose-leaf teas:
|Type of Tea||Quantity||Temperature||Steeping Time|
|Black tea||1 tsp. per 6 oz. cup||full rolling boil||3 – 5 minutes|
|Green tea||1 tsp. per 6 oz. cup||quiver boiling||1 – 2 minutes|
|Oolong tea||1 tsp. per 6 oz. cup||sub-simmer boil||2 – 3 minutes|
|White tea||2 tsp. per 6 oz. cup||quiver boiling||2 – 3 minutes|
If you are brewing black tea for your bubble tea then be sure to brew a strong cup of tea by steeping black tea for longer. Weak or pale tea with milk can be lifeless whereas a strong brew with milk really brings out the flavors and makes it tasty.
Even though there are so many different types of teas, most of which originate from one tea plant, Camellia Sinensis. Certain locations and climates can produce better qualities of varying teas.
Fermentation, which occurs when freshly picked tea leaves are allowed to dry and undergo enzymatic oxidation, influences the tea’s quality and flavor as well as the nutrients it contains. The degree of fermentation has a significant impact on the type of tea produced.
Most bubble tea shops use sugar syrup. Any type of sweetener you prefer will work for bubble tea. It all depends on your personal preference, especially when making it at home. Here are some common types of sweeteners that you can use:
- Simple Sugar Syrup
- Brown Sugar Syrup
- Maple Syrup
- Agave Nectar
- Yacon Syrup
Milk and Substitutes
Milk teas typically contain powdered milk or fresh milk, but may also contain condensed milk, whole milk, or non-dairy milk. There may likewise be no milk (or milk-like product) at all, as in cold tea-infused or juice-based drinks. Here are some types of milk used for milk tea:
- Fresh Whole Milk, Low-fat or Non-fat Milk
- Half and Half
- Nut milk: Almond Milk, Cashew Milk, Hazelnut Milk, Macadamia Nut Milk
- Grain (or seed) milk: Soy milk, Rice Milk, Oat Milk, Hemp Seed
How to cook Boba pearls
You can easily make your own boba for bubble tea. You can buy pre-made tapioca balls or make your own with this super simple recipe, which gives you more control over the size, texture, and flavor.
Because of the lengthy rounding process, making boba takes time. So make sure you’re in the right frame of mind. You don’t want to give up halfway through and end up with no boba for your bubble tea.
We only need three ingredients to make chewy brown sugar tapioca balls: sugar (brown or dark brown), tapioca starch, flour (so that the pearls don’t stick to one another), and water.
- In a pot, dissolve the sugar in water over a low fire. Allow the liquid to completely boil. Don’t increase your fire, this still needs to be done over low fire. Cover to prevent excessive water loss.
- Mix a half teaspoon of tapioca starch.
- Then count 6-7 seconds and remove from heat.
- Add the remaining tapioca starch and continue mixing until gathered. Be as quick and efficient during this process.
- Sprinkle flour on a work surface or chopping board.
- Transfer the smooth paste to a scraper blade and knead the dough to form. It may be slightly sticky at first. During the kneading process, lightly dust the board until it is smooth, no longer sticky, but still soft.
- Divide the dough into four parts and roll one into a thin and long log. Slice them into small cubes.
- Make small balls out of each cube. Longer shaping will result in more stable balls after boiling. Be patient with this stage and remember, the spheres don’t need to be perfectly rounded.
- Sprinkle flour on a platter. Coat each ball with enough flour to keep them from sticking together. Then remove the excess starch. They can now be packaged in airtight bags and frozen for later use.
Once you’ve mastered the art of making tapioca balls, you can tweak the flavors of your boba to suit your personal preference. You can also improve the outcome of your pearls by making it more chewy, soft, firm, or a combination of these textures. You can also add other color ingredients to the boba balls, such as fruit juice or mocha powder, to make them more colorful and appealing.
How to assemble bubble milk tea
Be a bobarista in the comfort of your home with these easy steps.
- Brew your tea. Check the brewing methods above to see which one suits your preference.
- In a cup add your tea bag or loose-leaf tea (in a tea strainer or infuser).
- Fill the cup with the proper amount and temperature of hot water and steep for the ideal number of minutes.
- Remove the tea bag or strain the tea.
- Stir in your sugar until it has completely dissolved.
- Pour in your milk one splash at a time, adjusting the amount as needed to achieve the desired color and consistency.
- Stir and check for desirability. Remember, to each his own. Experiment on the amount of sweetness and milk to make the best cup for you. If you prefer the creamy smooth texture of a milky bubble tea, add half and half or whole milk for a richer flavor. Half cream and half milk combined, also offers the best of both worlds and gives your tea a slightly thicker consistency.
- Be sure to let your steeped tea chill before adding ice. If you aren’t patient and try to make it with tepid tea, you will find it melts the ice cubes too quickly and brings a watery taste to your tea.
- Now, sit back to enjoy your boba tea.
If all of the ingredients in your homemade bubble tea (or store-bought) are fresh, you can store it in the fridge (top shelf) for 24 hours and it will still taste great the next day.
While bubble tea can be stored in the fridge for at least 24 hours, and the tea may have lost much of its flavor, it is still best to consume it immediately. Some of the ingredients you’ve layered on your boba, such as creams or foams, will have been incorporated into the liquid itself.
Keep your tapioca pearls at room temperature if you made them yourself. Refrigerating them would result in a hard texture, whereas heating them would result in a soft texture.